Notes from Paris: COP21 initial impressions

Day 2 of COP21 is almost in the books here in Paris, and there's lots of good news to report.

First Impressions:

The show of support for climate action here in Paris is massive. Physically, the Le Bourget conference area where the COP meetings are taking place is enormous, and is filled with elaborate booths and displays from governments, NGOs, and companies. On day 1, around 150 heads to state assembled in Le Bourget to express their support for climate action--reportedly the largest gathering of heads of state ever. The rhetoric of these leaders has been unanimously powerful: "A once in a thousand year opportunity" remarked a official from the Chinese delegation earlier this evening at a side event. In and around Paris, there are numerous other climate-related workshops, art displays, protests, and other events hosted by businesses, universities, and NGOs -- I haven't heard of a single event where the message was against climate action. Everyone assembled is united in the desire and urgency for a positive outcome for these talks.

What, exactly, success is supposed to look like is much harder for me to figure out. Many of the delegation officials and NGO observers that I've spoken to are well aware that there is a large "emissions gap" from the actions we need to take to meet our stated 2C (let alone 1.5C) warming goal. They seem satisfied with this gap so long as the negotiations produce a mechanism to ratchet up commitments over time.

Why, exactly, the community seems largely to believe that a ratchet mechanism is plausible but steeper emissions commitments today are not remains unclear to me. The best explanation that I can think of is that multilateral action of any kind moves very slowly, and is built on trust developed through incremental action. Along the lines of Brad Plumer's great piece, all of the steps on display here in Paris show incremental progress towards building trust, which is all Paris really needs to achieve. Take the bilateral actions, the commitments from billionaires, the rhetoric (and presence) of heads of state, and non-state progress (with California a clear leader in this category) featured at COP21: it shows that real agreements are happening now, and greater action is possible in the future. Whether it is reasonable to think that this approach will produce the future action needed to close the emissions gap is a mystery to me, but there is little questioning going on here at COP21 whether this strategy is the best course of action for the negotiation.

So where, exactly, does that leave negative emissions? In urgent demand. If this multi-lateral strategy moves more slowly than is needed to curtail climate change, we will need negative emissions solutions--given how long it is likely to take for them to develop, it is urgent that we get started on this topic now. 

And there is growing talk of action on negative emissions, though it is still very below-the-radar in the mainstream conversation. For example, today was a big day for agriculture announcements related to carbon sequestration. There are also a number of forestry projects with sequestration potential on display, including the Great Green Wall project in Africa. And the role of bioenergy+CCS came up during one of the only officially-accredited events to focus on CCS. At the 2C Investing Initiative side event in downtown Paris yesterday, Ottmar Edenhofer even called out negative emissions technologies as being a key R&D priority today.

Moving forward

A lot more action still lies ahead here in Paris over the next few days -- and more updates to come once everything starts to become more clear. Until then, a few photos from the last few days:

The organizers have gone all out for the COP21 meetings -- a mini Eiffel Tower marks the end of the negotiations halls.

The organizers have gone all out for the COP21 meetings -- a mini Eiffel Tower marks the end of the negotiations halls.

Agroforestry offers myriad potential benefits, including carbon sequestration.

Agroforestry offers myriad potential benefits, including carbon sequestration.

The French Government announcing its commitment to the 4 per 1000 initiative for soil carbon restoration.

The French Government announcing its commitment to the 4 per 1000 initiative for soil carbon restoration.

The optimistic German pavilion

The optimistic German pavilion

The Great Green Wall project had a virtual reality exhibit to see what the afforestation project in Africa would do for local communities.

The Great Green Wall project had a virtual reality exhibit to see what the afforestation project in Africa would do for local communities.

Negative emissions was highlighted as a key reason we needed CCS technology by Tim Dixon of the IEAGHG

Negative emissions was highlighted as a key reason we needed CCS technology by Tim Dixon of the IEAGHG

The US-China collaboration event at the China Pavilion showcased all of the bilateral ties between these two major emitters, with a nod to these bilateral talks paving the way for a multilateral agreement at the end of COP21.

The US-China collaboration event at the China Pavilion showcased all of the bilateral ties between these two major emitters, with a nod to these bilateral talks paving the way for a multilateral agreement at the end of COP21.